The world of animation has been rocked by news of the sudden death of the pioneering Japanese director Satoshi Kon, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 46 yesterday.
Kon was the anime equivalent of Charlie Kaufman, his four finished films were multi-layered and their concerns were generally introspective and psychological, with questions of identity usually in the foreground. In no film was this more apparent than in his most recent finished film: 2006's 'Paprika'. Four years before Nolan's 'Inception', 'Paprika' involved a device that allowed people to enter other people's dreams and the film blurred the lines between the dreamworld and reality.
But the anime film-maker had played with similar themes since his 1997 debut as a director, 'Perfect Blue', which amidst the now familiar questions of identity also explored celebrity and the (then) new dangers presented by Internet chat rooms. A Hitchcockian thriller, 'Perfect Blue' follows a young J-Pop star as she decides to change her image and try to make a living as a serious actress. A fact which angers some of her fans.
Then came perhaps his seminal work: 'Millennium Actress', released in 2001, was the story of an old actress looking back at her life through the parts she played, with reality and fiction becoming blurred. The actress, who has not been interviewed in years and has completely retired from public life, was loosely based on Setsuko Hara - the actress most famous for her starring role in Ozu's so-called Noriko trilogy of the 40s and 50s. The film plays with genre as a number of different epoch's of Japanese cinema are lovingly recreated, from Ishiro Honda-style monster movies to 'Throne of Blood' era Kurosawa pictures.
2003 saw a slight departure, with the release of 'Tokyo Godfathers', the story of three homeless people who come across an abandoned baby one Christmas and resolve to find her parents. There is one brief dream sequence and one of the homeless could be said to be in conflict with their own identity (the homosexual male Hana wishing to be the child's mother), but otherwise 'Tokyo Godfathers' is slightly more grounded in a solid reality compared to his other work - at least until the buildings start dancing over the end credits. Instead, much in the same way that 'Perfect Blue' and 'Millennium Actress' looked at issues of fame and celebrity, 'Godfathers' subtly questions Japanese society and its attitudes towards those who slip through the net. This isn't done via any grand soliloquy, but rather it is demonstrated by some of the obstacles that come between the trio and their goal. As Hana recites a number of Haiku, which enter the frame in elegant calligraphy, perhaps Kon was also satirising the Japanese traditions of formal beauty which exist in contrast to the reality of these people's lives.
Sandwiched between this oddity and the more conventionally Kon-esque 'Paprika' was the dynamic and experimental television series 'Paranoia Agent', a story of a mysterious, possibly imagined, juvenile thug told over thirteen episodes and from the perspective of as many characters. Kon saw the show as a way to make something which could utilise a number of his ideas which he felt did not fit into any of his features, and as such the show is richly filled with imaginative and memorable scenes.
Kon was known to be working on a fifth feature film, known as 'The Dream Machine', up until his death. It remains unclear whether this project will surface and in what form. Hopefully the late animator had finished the project, which he described thusly:
On the surface, it's going to be a fantasy-adventure targeted at younger audiences. However, it will also be a film that people who have seen our films up to this point will be able to enjoy. So it will be an adventure that even older audiences can appreciate. There will be no human characters in the film; only robots. It'll be like a "road movie" for robots
But whatever comes of 'The Dream Machine', Kon's legacy is not only the great imagination and psychological depth of his four existing films, but also the tone. Kon's work is an antidote to anyone who thinks anime is about cute, fetishistic school girls dancing around with giant robots, or whatever. Kon's films took a serious, gritty, non-exploitative tone and dealt with subjects usually found in live-action, but which could not have been realised in live-action (at least not without a huge budget). He used animation to the fullest and exploited all its possibilities in a way seldom seen inside of Japan or out.
And yet Kon is almost always overlooked when naming the great contemporary animators. When the definitive book is written on the last twenty years of animation, and sections are being given to Hayao Miyazaki, Sylvain Chomet, Brad Bird, Michel Ocelot, John Lasseter, Jan Švankmajer, Richard Linklater and Nick Park - let us hope space is reserved for Satoshi Kon. A true visionary and a master animator and a life cut tragically short. Tonight I will raise a glass to Kon-san.